We Learn When It’s New
When an employee starts a new position, they enter a period of rapid learning and development. Things are new, responsibilities have increased, there are unique training opportunities, and they are learning every day. Over time however (especially after the two-year mark), their learning slows down dramatically, and their development stagnates. This is often when attrition risk begins to increase and employee engagement begins to decrease. This is bad for the individual and bad for the organization.
As human beings have an innate need to learn and progress, organizations typically compete through continuous learning and upskilling their workforce. However, formal learning and development training opportunities often miss the mark. So how can an organization strengthen learning and development beyond the initial “honeymoon” period?
Partnering On Development
I recommend that talent management and HR professionals start with a better understanding of how individuals and the organization partner together when it comes to learning and professional development. Each learner comes to work with specific personal and professional development priorities. These learning priorities, or the employee’s “growth agenda”, may not be formalized or even truly understood by the individual. Even so, there are some areas of development that are more important to the employee than others.
Similarly, the organization has learning and development needs for each employee. The organization has its own “growth agenda”. The organization, for example, needs each employee to learn how to do their job, to learn to identify areas for innovation and improvement, to begin upskilling for future needs, and to develop key leadership skills needed for increased responsibility.
By surfacing and understanding these growth agendas, an organization can create a more meaningful growth proposition for it’s employees.
A Framework for Aligning Learning and Development Opportunities
Often, a skill that an organization needs isn’t desirable to all employees. Sometimes, a personal learning goal of an employee does not align with the organization’s strategy. Understanding and addressing these gaps is important in improving learning and development efforts. The framework below helps illustrate how the learning needs of the individual may or may not align with the learning needs of the organization.
This simple model introduces four possible categories to inform learning alignment.
Uphill – When an organization needs a skill developed but it is not something the employee wants to learn, the growth conversation becomes one of persuasion and assignment. When an uphill opportunity is identified, a manager can help the situation by framing the opportunity in its strategic context. “This is why this assignment/skill/or training helps our organization win…”
Gift (or zone of disappointment) – Sometimes an employee has development goals that are not aligned with the needs of the organization. For example, I may want to learn Swahili, but that skill might not offer any value to my company. Occasionally, there are ways to support unique employee learning goals in the form of a one-off “gift” or by providing some extra leeway or resources. Often, however, this misalignment means the employee must pursue the goal outside of work or if it is very important to them, look for a job that better aligns with the goal.
Waste – If the opportunity is not strategically important to the organization or personally important to the individual, it should be avoided. Professional certifications and trainings often fall into this trap. There may be a particular training available to your employees and championed by managers because they equate it with learning and development, but upon review it does not serve the needs of the org or the employee.
Sweet Spot – When a learning opportunity meets the personal and/or professional development needs of the individual and aligns with the organization’s strategy everyone wins. Sometimes learning opportunities fall in this learning sweetspot and it goes unnoticed. Recognizing mutually beneficial learning opportunities can help both parties better appreciate the efforts.
Managing Employee Learning
While the employee ultimately chooses how much they will engage in learning and development, the manager plays a critical role in creating the right conditions for employee learning. By seeking to better understand and serve the employee’s growth agenda, and by also appropriately representing the organization’s growth agenda, the manager can align assignments to the learning “Sweet Spot”, avoid “Waste” opportunities, frame “Uphill” assignments, and occasionally reward or provide leeway for “Gift” learning experiences. By recognizing that fostering continuous learning is a key leadership responsibility, managers at all levels can strengthen the development of their teams.
A Strange Disconnect
While analyzing employee engagement survey results for hundreds of companies, I have noticed a strange disconnect. Employees usually respond very favorably to the item “I believe this organization has a successful future” but at the same time they score low on survey items related to learning and professional development. They believe the company has a bright future, but they don’t seem to connect that optimism with their own future development opportunity. Why is that? I believe it is because no one, not their manager, not senior leadership, not hr professionals, or even the chief learning officer has clearly communicated, “When we grow, you grow.”
This may sound obvious, but one of the best things an organization can do to improve the employee experience, invite employee engagement, and strengthen employee retention is to win in the marketplace. And then, when they are winning, to connect-the-dots for employees. Company success creates a fertile learning environment. As a company succeeds, leadership roles increase and upskilling needs emerge. Too often the prospects of career development and training opportunities go unnoticed and underappreciated due to a lack of communication. Simple messaging or coaching conversations can help close the gap.
Aligning learning and development is a company-wide effort that takes leadership that is committed to and mindful of the learning needs of the organization and the employees. It takes managers and HR professionals that are actively listening and communicating in 1:1 growth conversations with employees. One way this is done is through conducting regular 360 degree feedback assessments. Lastly and equally, it take employees that see and respond to a fertile learning environment.